AMES, IOWA -- Monte Morris sat between the two wooden barriers at his locker tucked away down a quiet hall in Madison Square Garden talking not of the past, but instead about the offseason that awaited him.
Iowa State’s season had just come to a harrowing conclusion with a loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16, and sure, Morris was upset. He was also determined. He was determined to cut up film and find things to improve upon. He would add 20 pounds. He would use this moment to help with the next.
“So,” a freshman Morris said, “sky is the limit for me if I keep working.”
Five points had kept Morris and the Cyclones from the Elite Eight, and he wasn’t going to forget it. If Morris were ever motivated, it was now.
“There were times in that game I felt like I didn't finish,” Morris said. So when he was in the weight room, Morris did one extra curl. “There were times in that game I gave up a few buckets,” he added. So Morris guards that much harder.
“We could have went to the Elite Eight,” he says. “It still haunts me, because the fact that we were that close. It would be different if we got blown out, but we were that close. I was [five] points away from playing in the Elite Eight.”
March has arrived again, and Monte Morris is ready.
He stood in his coach’s basement on this Selection Sunday awaiting word on where the Cyclones were headed. The gray Big 12 Champions hat was different from last season’s only in color and the year written across the front.
Morris is anything but similar. That 4.79 assist-to-turnover ratio that set an NCAA record last season is being upstaged by his current 4.91 mark. March is where names are made, however, and Morris is certainly aware.
“I try to play my best basketball in March,” Morris said. “A lot of people are just tuning into you now. They’ve got time and everybody is interested in the tournament. That’s people’s first impression when they watch me. I just want to go out there and play great, man, and leave a good memory on them.”
So far, so good.
In the last 10 games leading to Iowa State’s second postseason conference crown in as many seasons, Morris averaged 14.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. He is fueled by being named All-Big 12 Second Team rather than being named to the first. Mostly, though, he is fueled by sitting defeated at that locker in New York one year ago.
Now, he can forget. The Cyclones have a new road in front of them.
As the team awaited word on where it would be headed, Iowa State finally popped onto the screens in the Hoiberg basement Sunday, revealing that the Cyclones will be a 3-seed in Louisville. First up is UAB.
“It’s like a dream come true,” said Jameel McKay, who will be making his first appearance in the Big Dance. “As a kid you always grow up wanting to be fortunate enough to play in the NCAA tournament. To see it actually happen before my eyes is an amazing feeling.”
There was some thought after Iowa State claimed another Big 12 title that it could push its way into a 2-seed. In the end, remaining a 3-seed may pay dividends. Rather than rise to a 2-seed in Kentucky’s region, the Cyclones are on the opposite side of the bracket as the vaunted Wildcats.
The road to cutting down the next nets begins in Louisville, where Iowa State will play in a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Just as Morris is playing his best basketball, so, too, are the Cyclones, who enter the NCAA tournament on a five-game winning streak.
“It’s the best time of the year for me and I know a bunch of the guys will agree with me,” Naz Long said excitedly. “You’ve just got to be ready. We want to be national champions and the quicker we can be that, the better. With that being said, we have to take the right steps and preparation, because anybody can be beat in March.”
The twinge in Morris’ stomach serves as that reminder.
“I feel like that game was at our fingertips,” Morris said, thinking back to last season’s Sweet 16. “I thought about it all offseason. That was my motivation going into all my workouts… For this time. And now it’s here.”